On the Magic of Summer Camp by Anton DiSclafani

Editor's Note: Anton DiSclafani grew up in northern Florida, where she rode horses, competing nationally. She graduated from Emory University and received her MFA from Washington University, where she currently teaches creative writing. She lives in St. Louis. Her novel, The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls, is now available in paperback. For Signature's That Summer series, in which authors share personal stories on the summers that shaped them or their subjects, Anton thinks back to her own summer camp experience, and why it mattered.

When I was in fourth grade, I begged my parents to send me to sleep-away camp for part of the summer. They weren’t sold on the idea, at first – why did I want to go away for five weeks? – but I wore them down, slowly but surely. Neither one of them had gone to any kind of camp as children, and the idea must have seemed foreign and hedonistic to them: five weeks of pure pleasure.

The camp – all-girls – was located outside of Asheville, North Carolina, nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains. I’d seen a brochure, which featured tan, strong girls playing tennis, riding horses, painting pottery, and just generally having what looked like the best time of their young lives. I wanted to go there. I wanted to be them.

When I arrived, homesickness hit, immediately and powerfully. I’d never missed anyone like I missed my parents, my sister, my home. I cried myself to sleep the first night in our screened-in cabin, quietly, so that none of the other girls, who all seemed to know each other, would hear. The next morning I saw a centipede in the shower. This whole idea, I saw now, had been a grave mistake.

There were very few adults. Our counselors were all high school or college kids, young and cool, hardly figures of authority. At first this made me nervous. I liked order, rules. That first morning, I walked into the dining hall and saw a sea of girls, and I wanted to run. I didn’t like the idea of being set loose among them. What would happen to me?

What happened to me was amazing: I learned to live without the constant presence of adults. Pretty soon, I didn’t even notice they weren’t there. I made friends, learned all the camp cheers, signed up for activities. Horseback riding and track were my favorite; pottery, where I made many disfigured bowls and vases, was the most boring part of my day. And it wasn’t even that bad.

I had never in my young life been so busy. Summer at home meant a lot of whining about how bored I was. At camp, there was a single hour of prescribed quiet in the entire day: rest hour, which we passed by whispering and employing our own made-up brand of sign language. The rest of the day was packed to the brim, from morning bell to evening bell, at which point we all fell into our bunk beds, utterly exhausted. It felt like a place run by kids. The adults used their influence so subtly that we basically never noticed them.

I felt powerful, for the first time in my life. I hated pottery, so I quit, switched to swimming. At night, the walk to the bathroom was terrifying and awesome: I’d never felt so brave. Each night, after dinner, we waited for the canteen to open, and there we spent our own money (put into our camp accounts by our parents) on various treats. It felt like a very exciting kind of grocery shopping. And at the end of the summer, we put on our own talent show, grouping off and creating bizarre, poorly timed acts (I impersonated Michael Jackson in my cabin’s variety show). In my real life, back home, I was shy, reserved, not the kind of kid who liked performing. I still remember the heady feeling of being on stage in front of an audience of girls.

I was glad to see my parents at the end of the summer, but I mourned the loss of camp. At home it was back to the boring, supervised normal. My life felt like it belonged more to my parents than me. And that was the magic of camp: convincing a bunch of kids that their highly orchestrated summer was their own invention.

Find more in our That Summer series here.

Inspired to share your own summer experience? Submit your story to Paste’s That Summer writing contest by July 23rd for a chance to win a book bundle and an Out-of-Print t-shirt.